“People want to give their
opinions? Fine; it's their right. But as soon as they start throwing bricks,
we'll throw back. We're not here to be
passive; we're here to take down the bad guys before they get a chance to f***
with the innocent. That means I don't
worry about who's who. I go in; I get
the job done.” Shaun Wendleferce
finished speaking and dissolved into a young Latina standing in front of a
“I don't think I'd want him keeping
my neighborhood safe.” She turned
her mouth into a sad half-smile. “For
AmeriNews, this is Maria Ruiz—”
The saving grace was that he hadn't
smiled. He had the presence of mind to
keep his face somber and not look like he enjoyed beating all those people.
Any benefit this might have given
to public opinion was completely obliterated by what AmeriNews had shown with
the interview: a small tag labeling the man as
PPD Officer Shaun Wendelferce,
Major, US Army, Retired. Those
words changed him from a trigger-happy cop beating on rowdy demonstrators to the
hammer of government oppression, slamming down on any who questioned the
official story on the Defenders. The
situation was made all the worse because, eighteen hours after the attack,
there was no official story on the
Edgar Latterndale sat on a bench
outside of the Oval Office, watching the situation deteriorate on a screen in
the opposite wall.
Beside him, Julia Telk sighed. “This isn’t good…” Her eyes flicked to the closed doors of the
cabinet room. “How much longer you think
they can keep this up?”
Edgar shrugged. “Who knows?
If they screw up on this, we’re all dead. But if they don’t hurry up with something,
we’re dead anyway.”
“I still just say we admit
Edgar sighed; that was the option
he and Julia had been pushing all morning.
De-classify everything about the real
EHUD program, admit their involvement in creating the Defenders, leave
themselves at the mercy of the people.
It would likely be better than the treatment they would receive if the
Defenders got to them first.
“Can't do it,” Isaac kept
insisting. “You think they'll let us off
without serious jail time?”
“They can't put us in jail!” Edgar
insisted, again and again. “We haven't
done anything illegal! Unethical,
unconstitutional, yes, but not illegal!”
“Perjury,” someone had reminded
The President didn’t listen. He insisted on labeling the Defenders a
foreign threat, on rooting them out, killing them, and coming out looking like
the hero. Only Edgar knew how impossible
that would be, and he decided he wouldn't be the one to say it. Let the stubborn old fool find out for
himself what Mistlethwakey was planning.
Not for the first time, Edgar
wondered if the stubborn young fool had any idea what the General was
“Alternative...” he found himself
Julia looked at him.
“We drop the notion of having any
claim to the Defenders; that ship sailed the minute Ashleigh lost it. We treat them instead as an independent
entity and deal with them directly, in a First Nations kind of way.”
“No way Isaac goes for that...”
“Forget Isaac. Charlton will go for it, once Isaac gets
impeached or resigns.”
Julia sighed and kneaded her
temples. “Won't work.”
They sat in silence for a few
minutes, then heard an incomprehensible flurry of sound as the door to the
office opened and the stout form of Rosencrantz pushed through.
“There's got to be a better way to
block eavesdroppers. I'm getting a
Rosencrantz leaned against the wall
under the television and stared at the floor.
“All right, you guys have a convert.
I was looking at some stuff, pre-AmeriNews, And it looks like Philly
isn't the only one. L.A., San Francisco,
Chicago, all the big cities are protesting in some way. Smaller towns, we got local government
denouncing us. Telethepee, Ohio just
signed a declaration of secession.”
“So the public is definitely with
the Defenders on this?” Julia asked.
“Definitely. No words from overseas, but it's obvious
where the U.N. will be.”
“And Isaac still wants to blame
terrorists and ride this out?”
“Fuck this.” Edgar stood and began walking away.
“Where are you going?” Julia asked,
standing as well.
“Home. Just like last night. He won't listen; he won't hear me.”
Rosencrantz shuddered at the phrase
“last night” but kept himself enough together to say, “C'mon; he's almost got a
statement worked out. Just a little
Edgar stopped and stared absently
at a portrait at the end of the corridor.
“Amanda needs me...”
When he got home the night before,
he had found Amanda, still in her blood-smeared dress, asleep in the bed next
to Ethan. He had tried to waken her, to
get her out and into her own room. She
resisted at first, and eventually Edgar lay down at the foot of Ethan’s bed,
determined to stay with his family even as he suspected that he had lost the
right to do so.
Amanda’s stumbling exit from the
room woke Edgar an hour later and he followed her into their room, helped her
out of her dress, into the shower. When
she was done she sat on the bed, undressed, staring at the wall. Edgar's instincts told him he should do something to help. This wasn’t the way Amanda acted; she was an actor, not a reactor. She was always
busy, always ready for something new.
Seeing her completely destroyed by what had happened just felt…
At some point he woke up, dressed
in clean pajamas, in his own bed. He
found Amanda downstairs, reorganizing the house, giving new orders to the maid,
sending faxes and looking over client account files for work. The slow-motion Amanda from the night before
was gone; she looked to be making up for lost time.
“Edgar,” she called as he came down
the stairs. “I’m not going into the
office today; I can write grants from home.
I want you to go get Ethan; breakfast is in ten minutes; Dora has
everything ready. We’re going to have a
nice family meal, then we’re going out to my parent’s place. They’re on vacation, and they won’t mind if
we use the house.”
Amanda didn’t stop moving. She walked to a wall screen, brought up a
spread sheet full of figures, tapped at something, nodded, and moved over to a
small mound of papers on the dining room table.
“It’s been forever since we’ve gotten out of the city—“
“We’re not in the city—“
“And Ethan won’t be missing
anything at school. It’ll be good for
the family to be together.”
She wasn’t making up for lost
time. She was trying to put as much time
as possible between last night and the rest of her life.
“Mandy, you know I can’t—“
Amanda stopped moving and stood
stock-still, her bathrobe quavering from the force of her deep breathing. “Edgar.”
The name was ice cold. “You’re a
member of this family. You’re not a
sperm donor, not a pay check, not the goddamn SecDef. You’re a father, a husband, and you will
start acting like one.”
The accusation in her words
triggered something; everything he had been holding back flooded in, and
everything was swept away until he stood alone, holding that pathetic little
pistol against the unknown, a spear against a tank. His knees gave way, and he slumped against
the kitchen island.
Amanda rushed to his side. “Shh, shh, it's okay, you know I love you, it's
It wasn’t. It could never be, not after last night. The Defenders were Mistlethwakey's tools; how
long was it before the General decided to bring them to bear against Edgar? How long before Isaac found out Edgar's role
in last night's events? Amanda wasn’t
safe; Ethan wasn’t safe; the whole world was under the gun now. And it was Edgar’s fault. He had failed as a husband and a father; it
was too late to try again.
He fought back to his feet, pulled
away from Amanda. “No. You take Ethan, go where you need to, to be
safe, but I can’t go.”
“Edgar, please, your family needs
“No, you need the person you think I am. Who knows?
Maybe I’ll become that person.
But right now, right now I have to be practical. I can’t be the person who makes you feel safe, I have to be the one who makes
sure you are safe.”
“Edgar, please—” There was a note of last night’s desperation
in her voice.
He was still in the East Room,
still hearing the shouts, the wet sound of pain. But now he was doing it, was stepping up to
face the creature. He was more terrified
now than ever before, but if he got through this, everything he had ever hoped
for would come to him—
“What I do today, I do for
us.” He grabbed Amanda’s arms and forced
her to look into his eyes. “You want me
to be a husband? Let me protect my
family; then I’ll be back with you, and I will never leave again.”
Amanda said nothing, and Edgar
wished he could be inside her mind, could know what she thought.
After several moments, Amanda
nodded. “Go. Fight the fight, face Lemlin again.” At least she seemed to know what he was thinking. “But come back to us.”
He leaned down and kissed her. “I’ll be home for dinner.”
Now, standing outside of the
president's office, he checked his mobile.
He'd be back not long after lunch...
“Amanda needs me more than Isaac
Both Julia and Rosencrantz nodded,
then turned away from him and reentered the office, accompanied by another bark
of incoherent noise.
Edgar made his way across the
mansion to where an armored car was waiting to take him back to his own
vehicle, but stopped when he heard raised voices in the entrance hall. He paused and listened for a moment, recognizing
the accented voice that dominated the argument.
“We will see him! He is the one at the center of the claims,
and we will hear directly from the man himself!”
It was the Iranian ambassador,
Ahmad Mokri, a man Edgar had met in a professional capacity on several
occasions. He might be exactly who Edgar
was looking for.
Abandoning his exit strategy, Edgar
made his way to the entrance hall.
Moments later he found a small group of well-dressed men and women of
varying ethnicities and ages; all were known on sight, although he could only
recall a few names.
Ahmad stood at the head of the
group, arguing with Elliot Nieman.
“I’m sorry, Mr. Mokri, but I must
stress again that the president is in a very important meeting—”
“This isn’t about his meeting, or
even his country! This is a global
issue, and will be addressed as such!”
“I cannot simply—”
Edgar smiled. If Isaac wouldn’t listen to his own advisers,
then a half-dozen irate emissaries should do the trick.... and he would still
be home in time for dinner.
“Ahmad!” he called, summoning up as
much charisma as he could.
The chief of staff was forgotten as
Ahmad rounded on him, a smile beginning to bisect his face. “Ah, Mr. Secretary! I'm so glad to see you alive today! That was quite a display of heroism you put
on last night!”
Edgar suppressed a shudder and
bowed his head. “Just doing what anyone
would do for their country.”
Ahmad inclined is head. “I would certainly hope so, yes, but perhaps
this country was not in need of your heroics?”
“Well, until we can find out the
truth behind Lemlin’s words, we should give the country the benefit of the
Ahmad shrugged. “Which is why we...” he gestured to the small
crowd clustered around him, “are here.”
The chief of staff stepped
forward. “I’m sorry, Ed, I tried to stop
Edgar smiled in what he hoped was a
pleasant manner. Based on Ellie's
involuntary shudder, it wasn’t. “It’s
all right. They have legitimate
concerns. Hell, we all do. Maybe speaking with the president can help to
settle those fears.”
“The president left clear
instructions that he wasn’t to be—”
Edgar leaned in close, trying to
stretch himself up even half an inch higher.
“Look,” he hissed, “I’m a cabinet member, an adviser to the
president. Specifically, I help him in
the defense of this nation. If that
requires helping him through some… negotiations…
I will certainly do my best. So don’t
push this, okay?”
Ellie swallowed and nodded. “I guess if you were to escort the—”
He turned back to Ahmad’s
delegation. “Ladies, gentlemen, if
you’ll follow me; I’ll see what I can do about getting you in to see the president.”
Edgar led them back the way he had
come, realizing that no matter how Isaac reacted, he now had important
international allies in place for his upcoming promotion.
Edgar stopped his followers next to
the bench he had so recently left. “If
you'll wait here, I’ll see if the President is ready to meet with you.”
Through the door, through ten feet
of incoherent, high-pitched babbling, into the small knot of people clustered
in front of the desk.
“—would make running this place
fucking impossible! We would have a war
on our hands, one we can’t afford to—“
“And if we just stick our heads up
our asses, what then? Huh? You think they’ll treat us any better?”
“Look, maybe we should just go
online, see which idea is the most popular right now—“
“Shut up, Eli!”
Rosencrantz had been wrong; they
were nowhere near close to a resolution.
The President noticed Edgar's
presence. “Ready to help us out here, or
are you still saying we should sell out?”
The discussion lulled as all eyes
turned to Edgar. “I've reconsidered my
stance, yes. I now say we acknowledge
Lemlin and the rest of the Defenders, grant them asylum, and allow them to
initiate the Q-bomb.”
“Q-bomb?” Rosencrantz asked.
“Something Fendleton talked about,”
the president said, dismissing the questio with a wave of his hand. “Got the name from an old movie, The Mouse
That Roared. Set up the Defenders as
an unassailable super-weapon, and world peace ensues. This only works, of course—” he glared up at
Edgar, “—if they're under our control.”
Edgar shrugged. “Doesn't matter to me; you won't listen to
reason. Maybe you'll listen to
international scrutiny, though.”
“The fuck does that mean?”
“Shut off the voice boxes; we have
Before Isaac could protest, Edgar hurried
to the door, pulled it open, and gestured flamboyantly to the emissaries
waiting outside. The unintelligible
babble was choked off just before the emissaries stepped forward.
“Mr. President,” he called over his
shoulder, “may I present Ambassadors Mokri, Ammanue—”
“Excuse me!” Issac said, lurching
to his feet. “This is a private meeting,
and uninvited guests are not...” He
trailed off, glancing from ambassador to ambassador. “Mr. Mokri,” he said at last, “to what do I
owe this pleasure?”
Ahmad inclined his head in greeting,
then frowned. “First, I would like to
offer my condolences for the members of your administration who lost their
lives in last night’s unpleasantness.”
“I’ll be sure to pass that along to
Ahmad nodded. “Secondly,” he paused and grimaced. “Secondly, I would like to ask you about the
validity of Mr. Lemlin’s statements.”
Isaac glared at the man. “I’m afraid we’re still trying to ascertain
that for ourselves.”
Ahmad looked back at the others in
his group. “So you deny his accusations?”
Edgar swallowed and held his
breath; outside scrutiny had arrived in the White House and the time for
strategy had passed.
The president chewed on his lip for
a moment, then straightened. “While we
of course take no responsibility for Mr. Lemlin’s actions, we are putting all
our effort into discovering the veracity of his statement.”
Edgar released his breath.
Ahmad nodded, disappointment clear
in his expression. “I thought that’s
what you'd say. I suppose you’ll be
clarifying your position in due course?”
Ahmad nodded again. “Well, before you do, I’d like you to
consider some things. These are not
official positions. Just… food for
thought.” He gestured back at his
entourage. “India, Pakistan, Kenya,
Korea, Indonesia, and of course Iran, have all been in discussion, and we’ve
come up with some provisional resolutions.
If the United States was responsible for the creation of the Defenders,
as Lemlin alleges, we will consider it an unconscionable crime against
humanity. However, we will judge it no
more harshly than what many of our own countries have done in times past. We are willing to work with the United
States, to help in any way we can to put this unpleasantness behind us and move
on as a species.
“But…” here he paused and glared at
Isaac until the president averted his eyes.
“But if we find that the United States has intentions, any intentions of
using the Defenders as weapons, in any way, we will respond in kind. If what Mr. Lemlin says is true, then the
Defenders are on the same order of magnitude as nuclear devices. We have no Defenders, so we will have to
respond in kind any way we can.”
The room was dead silent.
“Did you just threaten nuclear
retaliation?” the president whispered.
Ahmad laughed, the sound seeming
inappropriate under the circumstances.
“Threaten nuclear retaliation? I
did no such thing! Unless of course this
conversation is being recorded, in which case I would love to hear what else is in the recording.”
“I'll take what you've said under
advisement. Good day.”
Ahmad inclined his head once
more. Without another word, he and his entourage
turned and left the room.
Edgar closed his eyes. That had gone about as bad as could be
“Did Bob put you up to this?” Isaac asked.
“Did Bob think the Defenders would be so much better off on their
own? It would have worked, Ed. We would have had our own goddamn invincible
army, volunteering itself on its own terms, the rest of the world none the
wiser. But Bob just had to put them out
in the open, didn't he?”
“Not sure I follow...”
Isaac sneered and leaned back on
his desk, the rest of his cabinet forgotten.
“Doesn't tell you everything, does he?
Back when all this started, he wanted to use the Defenders as rogues to
start World War III, let us take out anyone we didn't like, come out as a
superpower again. I was the one
who talked the president into wiping them and getting them to volunteer for the
military. Who would argue with us if we
just found super-soldiers?”
“I'm fairly certain Bob isn't picking
Either Isaac didn't hear, or he
didn't listen. “You tell him he's won,
all right? He gets his goddamn war. We have rogue nations making super-soldiers. We'll retaliate.”
Julia and Rosencrantz both groaned
aloud. Several others looked uncomfortable.
“Eli! Get ready, we're going live in twenty.”
Edgar shook his head and left. He saw now why the General wouldn't work with
Isaac any longer. It would have to be
Edgar who fulfilled the plan...
But he had no intention of letting
Mistlethwakey pull his strings.
Maria Ruiz sat in the ready room at
the AmeriNews D.C. studio, rubbing her head and sipping from a cup of coffee
that didn't contain alcohol, if her producer happened to ask. The entire news office had been going at a
frantic pace since last night, with Maria pulled in to cover the various riots,
in addition to her role as a political reporter. She hadn't slept since two nights ago.
She was contemplating a quick nap
when commotion at the door caught her attention. An intern stood there, tablet in hand. “Excuse me, everyone,” she said, and the
haggard reporters swung their eyes her way.
“Just told the Eagle will speak in less than five minutes. Watch, pick a position, and be ready for
Maria groaned, then turned to the
small makeup table she had been assigned.
She began unscrewing jars, ignoring the flurry of activity starting
behind her. Forty-five minutes ago: she
had been on forty-five minutes ago, for a two-hour block, and was now going
back up. She needed a nap...
Too soon, the sound of the
AmeriNews “Breaking Report” music interrupted her thoughts. She could see the reflection of a
tired-looking anchor on the television.
“We have just received word that the White House will be issuing a
statement addressing the attack upon President Latterndale and the accusations
leveled against him by one Mervin Lemlin.”
He paused for a moment. “We now
go live to the White House.”
The scene changed to a blue curtain,
bright behind a dull-grey podium. Something
looked off about it.... There were no
flashes of cameras, no general hubbub of a crowded room being picked up by the
It took Maria a few moments to
realize that the room was deserted, save for the camera operator.
A moment later the heavy-set form
of Eli Rosencrantz came into the shot and slid in behind the podium.
“Members of the American public…
hello.” His voice sounded hollow, as if
he were speaking from memory without understanding what he said. “It is with great sadness that I come to you
today to speak of the events that transpired last night. As you are all no doubt aware, at eight
seventeen on the evening of September eleventh an unknown assailant, claiming
to be deceased Private First Class Mervin Lemlin, infiltrated the White House
and proceeded to assault the president, as well as guests and security staff
through inexplicable means. Immediately
prior to the assault, allegations were made against the United States military,
and the nation in general, that we were responsible for the creation of
so-called Defender super-soldiers, such as the assailant himself.”
Rosencrantz paused, clearly
shaken. Maria turned in her seat, seeing
that the others in the room had also turned to the television.
“While we are taking these
allegations very seriously, and cannot at this time completely rule out the
possibility of some faction within the government being responsible for the
illegal and unethical creation of the Defenders, the President, his
administration, and the United States as a sovereign whole deny any involvement
in these heinous acts.”
The room erupted in yells of
disagreement and anger. Maria tried to
ignore the shouts and listen to Rosencrantz.
“It is our firm belief the
assailant, as well as other Defenders, if indeed they truly exist, to be the
work of foreign agents, intent on destabilizing this government.
“It is with this belief that we
will attempt to come to the truth about this incident and bring to justice
those behind it.” He paused again, giving
the camera a thousand-yard stare. He
looked as if he had just realized he was giving a speech on live TV. “Um… Th-thank you, and good night.”
As Rosencrantz abandoned the
podium, the scene shifted back to the AmeriNews anchor, who mirrored the Press
Secretary's stare for several seconds before thinking of something to say.
The situation was different in the
“No, that is total bullshit—“
“Do they really think we’re that stupid—“
“What the hell were they thinking—“
Maria slumped forward, her head
resting on the mirror. She let out a
soft laugh, which just for a moment turned into a sob; no chance of a nap
Edgar Latterndale rose from the
floor, his clothes soaked in blood, and stepped up to the platform. He held up
a large pistol and spoke, his voice lost in the dull roar of the ballroom. Merv Lemlin turned to stare down at
Latterndale, looked as if he were about to speak, and then was obscured by a
pulsing white circle.
“Shit.” Alice leaned forward and paused the
video. “Needs to buffer.”
“Nah,” John said, “won't do any
good. Their servers are probably
They sat in John's cubicle,
surrounded by five of their coworkers, staring at the video on John's second
“Ten bucks says their servers
crash,” someone called from the back.
“It's not going to crash,” someone else
answered, “it's the state channel. They
have enough resources to handle this kinda thing.”
“Not something this big.” Alice shook her head and leaned back into her
chair. “I still can’t believe this
Walter, a structural engineer whom
John had worked with over a decade ago, scooted forward between Alice and
John. “I heard that it was successful,
and the reason it’s taking so long to get an official statement is that they’re
trying to find a convincing body double.”
“No, this guy kept his camera on
the whole time, and you can see Latterndale getting pulled out.”
Walter shrugged. “I don’t know. Just what I heard.” He sighed. “Damn, it’s just so surreal, you
know? I mean, Kennedy was just a bullet
or three, all the theories aside. But
this? What the hell was this?”
“Just special effects,” John said,
refreshing the page in an attempt to play the video. “They know that whatever happened all the
conspiracy nuts’ll over-inflate it, so they’re doing the job for them. Whatever happened is really embarrassing, and
they don’t want anyone to know.”
John shrugged while he absently
juggled a pen. “I don’t know. Maybe someone in upper management went nuts
and blew up the ballroom.”
“Why—no, how would they get everyone together in less than a day’s time to
film a cover up that is going to be leaked by AmeriNews?” Alice asked.
“Body doubles.” John lost control of his pen and watched it
roll across the floor.
“Alright,” Walter said, “for the
sake of argument, let’s assume that everything was real. This guy really could levitate things and
read people’s minds and stuff. You think
he’s telling the truth?”
“You mean about being made by us?”
“Yeah. I know we’ve done some pretty bad stuff in
the past but this...” he shrugged. “I
don’t know; it just seems so... North Korean.”
Alice rolled her chair back and
forth, her lips pursed in concentration.
“I don’t support what Lemlin did.
I’m pretty well anti-violence.
But I do think he was telling the truth; why would he lie?” She smiled, looking embarrassed. “I’ve already joined a pro-Defender rally for
John snorted. “Sounds like something my niece would do.”
“Well, she sounds pretty
smart—civically minded, at least. What
do you think, John? Did we do this or
John thought for a moment. He had seen some of the video and heard
Lemlin’s testimony; it all seemed too fantastical to be true. And when the White House made an official
statement, it would of course denounce Lemlin as some sort of foreign
agent. What was it that Rachel
said? If the government made an
immediate statement, it was a cover-up?
So if they’d waited this long… “He’s lying. It’s all part of his attack on the president,
to discredit him if he couldn’t kill him.”
“So I guess you’re a big government
kind of guy, then.”
“No, I just can’t imagine us giving
someone psychic abilities and then not exploiting it for everything its worth.”
“So you admit he really had psychic
powers?” Walter said, catching onto
“I’m still having trouble believing
Someone at the back of the cube
retrieved the pen and began to juggle it.
“Okay, screw the rest of the video; we all watched it earlier. White House have a statement yet?”
John turned back to his computer
and ran a search. “Nothing. Statement from the Pope about Lemlin’s
Alice leaned forward. “Do tell.”
“Let’s see. Careful examination of scripture, consulted
with many religious leaders, da-da-da-da… Okay, basically it’s either a corrupted
revelation of God’s power or a show of the adaptive powers of nature; he hasn’t
decided.” He glanced at the clock in the
corner of the screen. “Ooh, and it’s
late and I forgot my lunch. I hate to
leave this conversation unfinished, but I’ve got to head out.”
Walter dropped a hand onto John's
shoulder. “First, update on that tower.”
“Yeah, sure.” John closed the web browser and opened is
SkyCrest file. “Alright, let's walk you
The only remnant of the original
Sky Crest was the Central Maintenance Core, though it now stretched upward for
over a mile. Around it, was a
triple-helix spiral of colossal dodecahedrons, each containing multiple floors. In the gaps between the outer layer of glass
and the triple-helix were atriums stretching across several stories.
The shopping center that extended
from one side had become moat-like, encircling the tower’s half-mile wide
base. Twelve smaller towers projected up
from the pit to join the central tower as buttresses.
Walter nodded appreciatively. “Pretty nice....”
“Is it workable?” Alice asked.
John shrugged. “I ran stress tests. As far as the computer’s concerned, all it
needs is an underwriter.”
“Yeah...” Walter sighed. “Not likely to happen.”
“What's that mean?” the man behind
“It means that with a major terrorist
attack on the president, the economy's going to take a nose dive, and luxury
towers are out of the question.”
The other man responded, and John
took the opportunity to slip out of the office.
He had walked for two blocks before
he realized he wasn't particularly hungry.
He just wanted to get out of the office, to digest the events of the
It was tempting to dismiss them as
fabrications. Psychic super-soldiers
were too fantastic to be real. To accept
them at face value would be a tremendous leap of faith, one John wasn’t sure he
was willing to make. For him, the
paranormal was a mixture of con men and credulous victims, the Bible was
exaggerated folk-lore, and extraterrestrial life was single-celled organisms
living in ponds on the moons of Jupiter.
That was life, that was normal. If he accepted at face value what had
happened, if the walls of that normalcy could be breached that much, what else
could find its way through the cracks?
Possibly nothing, he realized. Psychic super-soldiers didn’t entail…
unicorns, say. And, in all honesty, the
Defenders weren't entirely unanticipated;
he had seen the rumors online, the supposed legal foundation....
The government would be aware of
that, too. Maybe they were covering
something, or trying to pick a fight, and just used a convenient story everyone
The sounds of a crowd on the
sidewalk ahead pulled John out of his thoughts, and he looked up to see a swarm
of people gathered outside an Army recruiting office, most carrying signs, and
several wearing crudely printed “Defend the Defenders” t-shirts.
One of the t-shirt wearers, a
frizzy-haired man wielding a megaphone,
was in the middle of a tirade. “—have
been victims of the military-industrial complex for too long! Who suppressed American workers in the 19th
century? Them! Who usurped South American sovereignty in the
20th century? Them! Who cut the legs out from under public health
care in the 21st century?
Each shout of “Them!” brought an
answering chorus from the audience.
“And now,” the man continued,
“they’re hitting us where we live, screwing around with us on the genetic
level! Well, I say, ‘No more!’ No more of our children into the meat-grinder,
no more soldiers sacrificed to Them!”
If the man said more, it was
drowned out by fevered cheering from the crowd.
The uproar was loud enough to attract the attention of those within the
office, and the cheers turned to angry boos and curses as an officer came out
and began speaking to the man with the megaphone.
John had seen enough. He was just about to continue on his way when
a woman detached herself from the crowd and came to stand beside him.
“Hell of a show, huh?” she asked.
The woman was a little shorter than
John, pale and thin, with high cheekbones and short red hair. Despite the relative warmth of the day, she
was wearing a thick, dirty jacket. Her
smell caused John to take a step away.
The woman stepped closer to him again.
“So,” she said conversationally,
“you can spare a dollar, maybe?”
John decided to give her the
benefit of the doubt. “Sorry, I’m not
interested in donating.”
The woman laughed, a high-pitched,
grating sound. “Donate! Hah!
No. I’m not with them. No, no, no, hell no. Hah!
No man, lunch money. I’m hungry;
can you spare a dollar? Maybe three?”
“No, sorry, I don’t carry
cash.” He turned and took a few
steps. Behind him he could hear raised
“C’mon,” the woman insisted, “is
that any way to treat an old friend?”
John didn’t look back.
His indifference didn’t seem to
faze her. “C’mon, man, you seriously
don’t recognize me? It’s me, Cyd, c’mon,
you gotta recognize me!” She reached out
and caught his hand. “You gotta be
shittin’ me John; you gotta be shittin’ me!”
This time John did turn around. He stared
at the woman—Cyd—trying to figure out how she had known his name. Stolen wallet? No, she had guessed and gotten lucky. Had to have done. Behind her, the crowd was closing in on the
“Look, lady,” John began, trying to
retrieve his hand, “I don’t know where you think you know me from—“
“From the Program, John!” There was a crazed sheen to her eyes. “From the Program, back when we were
Defenders!” She wasn't loud, but she was
able to draw the attention of the crowd's fringe.
“You’re crazy!” John managed to
free his hand and stumbled back a few steps.
“Are you really a Defender?”
someone in the crowd asked as he made his way closer to John and Cyd.
“Hell, yes!” Cyd declared.
“Me and John, we were EHUDs! I
wasn’t nothing special, but John here, Allen picked him to lead the
More people began to drift from the
crowd, pulled by the siren song of Cyd’s ramblings. John tried to walk away, but there were too
many people now. For her part, Cyd was
preening under the attention and continued on with her story that John was
called by God—or at least by His prophet, Allen—to destroy the hated military-industrial
Seeing that the crowd was now
turning itself onto a visibly uncomfortable civilian, the officer tried to
refocus their attention. When he grabbed
onto the ring-leader’s shoulder, the man with the megaphone swung around and
punched him in the face. The officer
clutched at his bleeding nose and stumbled away while the man with the
megaphone stared in shock at his bloody knuckles. Moments later he was tackled by several
soldiers who came rushing from the office.
As quickly as the crowd had turned
its attention to John, it now turned back to the chaos that had erupted in
front of the office. Some in the crowd,
sensing the inevitable outcome of the fight, hurried away. Others, among them Cyd, gleefully entered
in. Most, John included, stood in mute
fascination bordering on horror.
Some part of John knew he should
leave. Unfortunately, this part of John
had o motor control. The fight was
growing, and he had to dodge someone stumbling back towards him. Through the tangle of arms and legs, John
could see that one of the soldiers had been pinned and was being bludgeoned by
A hand grabbed John, and he twisted
around, expecting to see Cyd again.
Instead he came face-to-face with a different woman. She was his height, with a flat nose and
straight black hair. “This way,” she
insisted, jerking her head away from the riot.
John didn’t argue; he followed when
she started pulling him away.
Pedestrians all along the street
were stopping to look at the commotion in front of the recruiting office, and
many pressed closer to get a better look.
John and his rescuer turned at the
first cross-street they came to, and the sounds of the riot quieted behind
them. They slowed and continued on for
half a block until they were more or less alone.
“Thanks,” John said, reclaiming his
“Don’t mention it.” The woman leaned against a building and took
a deep breath, her face flushed from their recent sprint. John didn't look much better. “I saw you just standing there and figured
you could use a little prompting.” She
pushed herself upright and offered John her hand. “I’m Naomi.”
He shook her hand. “John.”
“Yeah, I know.”
John nodded. “She was a little loud, huh?”
Naomi imitated John's nod, and they
“Jesus.” John pushed his glasses up on his head and
rubbed at his eyes. “An actual
riot. I—I never thought I'd see that in
this day and age, right in the middle of the city.”
Naomi shrugged. “People are people, I guess.”
“Yeah, but all this over something
that might not be true?”
Naomi chuckled and shook her
head. “Not a believer, huh?”
“I just—I mean, it's a lot to take
in, conspiracy theories aside, and all we have is video, which can be—” He was
cut off by a sudden sharp gesture from Naomi.
“You hear that?”
As soon as she finished talking, he
heard. The sounds of the riot, of
yelling, of glass shattering and large objects being thrown about, was rising
He nodded. “We should get out of here. Hey, I'll walk you home, okay, or at least
the nearest train station?”
“No, I'm up from D.C. for business,
and my hotel's clear on the other side of town.”
“What were you doing over here,
She shrugged. “Sightseeing.”
“Listen, we at least need to get
inside somewhere and wait this out.” He
gestured back to the street corner, where a steady stream of people was running
in and out of the fray. “There's a
pretty nice bar and grill about a mile from here, should be safe enough.”
Naomi nodded, and John led her at a
brisk pace away from the chaos.
They passed under the outdated neon
sign of The Gilbert Wallace some twenty minutes later, and were surprised to
see that it was almost deserted.
“Lunch crowd's out,” the hostess
explained, “and most people don't want to get caught up in the riot.”
“But you're still open?” John
The hostess nodded and ushered them
inside the brick-lined main dining hall.
The televisions over the bar all showed a live feed from the riot. The hostess led them to a large table near
the corner, and John had just sat down when he heard a woman call his
name. His stomach lurched as he flashed
back on Cyd, and lurched again when he saw the speaker rise from her table and
walk over to him.
“Oh, my God, it's really you.” It was Lucy.
John swallowed, feeling the cracks
in his wall of normalcy open just a bit wider.
She looked the same as he had seen
her the night he called—the only way he remembered her looking—but there were
signs of stress, a few extra wrinkles around her eyes.
He looked past her to the table she
had just left. A man sat there, wearing
an overlarge police uniform, glaring murder at John.
A sharp pressure bit into John's
Naomi released her sudden grip, but
deep fingernail marks remained.
Lucy had reached the table and was
now staring at him, chewing her upper lip.
“I... I didn't think it was
real. The phone call, I mean. It was just so....” Her eyes lost focus for a moment, then
snapped around, looking at Naomi, then back to John, and finally off to the
side, seeking her companion. She grimaced. “I'm sorry about that. I just, wow, it's just been so crazy, and I
really wasn't expecting to see you again—”
She stopped again, took a deep breath, and thrust out her hand to
Naomi. “Hi! I'm Lucy, I, uh, used to know John here.”
Naomi accepted the hand. “I just met him.”
“Really?” Lucy was now conspicuously not looking
at John. She chuckled nervously and
gestured back at the table she had left.
“Where are my manners? Please,
John didn't want to. It was weird enough knowing about Lucy,
and he had come to terms with his missing past.
He didn't want her to be a part of his present. And then there was her boyfriend.... John looked back at the man, and found him
The man's sudden shift in
temperament seemed to be having an effect on Naomi. “Can't say no to hospitality,” she said,
smiling. She stood and walked with Lucy
back to the inhabited table.
When John joined them a moment
later, introductions were under way.
“Shaun this is... Sorry, what was
your name again?”
“Right. This is Naomi. Naomi, this is my fiancé, Shaun.”
Shaun nodded, his mouth full and
“And this is John, my, uh... ex, I
Shaun swallowed and nodded. “The dead guy.”
John's stomach clenched. He was offended that this man, this stranger,
had trivialized the defining event of
Why?he thought. I don't remember it, I don't even think about
it all that often. Why is this rubbing
“So you're a cop?” Naomi asked,
pulling out a chair and sitting. “You
planning on doing anything in the riot?”
Lucy sighed. “Awful, isn't it? As soon as word came on the news, everyone
pretty much cleared out of here.”
“We saw it first hand,” John
said. “That's how I met Naomi.”
“I'm not getting involved until I'm
asked to,” Shaun answered, ignoring John and sending another jab into his
bruised ego. “Extra cops on scene is
just more fuel on the fire.”
Naomi nodded and winked, leaving
John with the sensation that he had missed something.
They tried small talk for a few
minutes, then fell silent and turned their attention to the televisions. The riot had grown, blocking traffic and
turning into a looting spree around the edges.
Police were still trying for containment, but several officers had been
attacked and brought down by rioters.
The absolute focus of everyone in
the room was broken when Shaun's mobile began to buzz. He answered, had a hushed conversation,
disconnected, and stood. “I'm off. They need reinforcement, and they're refusing
to call in National Guard.”
Lucy jumped to her feet and hugged
Shaun stood board-stiff. “Don't stay here. It's safe for now, but if this spreads, the
bar's a perfect target for looters. Get
home, lock everything you can; gun’s on the second shelf up in the closet. Stay away from the windows.” He pulled away from Lucy and strode to the
door, ignoring the nervous looks from the wait staff.
John noticed that in the moments
after Shaun's instructions, Lucy looked dazed.
After he was gone, though, she shook her head and seemed to notice her
two remaining companions. “I'm sorry, I,
uh, I have to go.” She grabbed her purse
and hurried out the door.
Now alone, John looked at Naomi and
noticed for the first time how uncomfortable she appeared. “I'm really sorry about that. I didn't mean to drag you into my personal
She held up a hand and shook her
head. “It's okay. I knew a Shaun once. He was a real asshole. Just... deja vu, I guess.”
John laughed. “Sounds like this one, judging by my previous
run-in with him.”
“I'm guessing Lucy didn't know
about any earlier meetings.”
The hostess approached them. “Excuse me?
We're going to close. You want
anything before you go? No charge.”
John shook his head. “I'm good.”
No matter what he believed about the Defenders, there was no denying the
impact they were already having.
Honest-to-God riots, in the middle of the city. That somehow seemed less real to him than the
possibility of super-soldiers.
“I guess I'd better head out, too,”
“Can you get back to your hotel?”
She shrugged. “This'll kill traffic for at least a couple
of days. I'll get a new room in the
opposite direction; I doubt corporate will begrudge me a second room, all
“And who knows? Maybe I'll be wrong and this whole thing will
clear up on its own.”
The riot had grown to cover more
than two square miles by the time Shaun arrived. He stood with a knot of onlookers who
gathered at the edges of the riot, alternately held back by police and by
simple fear of death. Sometimes an
onlooker would get brave and try to jump into the melee, only to be brought
down by one of the officers trying to contain the violence. Soon they were beyond the edges of the riot,
bruised and handcuffed.
The city's jails would be full
Shaun worked his way to a nearby
police officers and showed his badge.
“Let me through.”
The officer let out a manic
chuckle. “Good, we’ve needed
back-up. Just catch anyone who tries to
get in there! Anyone who wants out can
“I’m here to fight, not to fuck
Shaun opened his mouth to respond,
then caught movement from the corner of his eye; someone was using the
distraction to get involved. Shaun shot
out an arm and grabbed the newcomer, swung the man’s head into his outstretched
fist, then let him fall.
“I’m here to end this.” He stared into the officer’s eyes.
After a moment, she frowned and
moved aside. “At least grab some armor.”
“Don’t need it. Won’t say no to your nightstick, though.”
The officer sighed and surrendered
her weapon. “Stay safe.”
Shaun was already gone. He waded out into the chaos, subconsciously
feeling the bodies moving around him, police and civilian caught up in a
perverse dance, each participant moving to destroy their partner. He pulled out his own nightstick, swung both
of them, getting his mind ready for what lay ahead.
A curse rang out behind him and he
went low, thrusting one arm back, feeling someone crumple over the end of the
borrowed nightstick. He came up, around,
swinging at his assailant’s head. One
down, a thousand to go.
Someone must have seen Shaun’s
attacker go down, for another was on him already. Shaun smiled wolfishly, feeling his heart
race and his mind go black. This was
what he lived for. Before he could ever
hope to know what happened—if he even wanted to—his body was moving, whirling
its weapons through the air, striking once, twice, again, again, again. Six down.
Shaun continued swirling, continued
striking. Each strike landed true: point
of the chin, base of the skull, side of the head, kidney, solar plexus,
groin. As the injured and unconscious
began to gather around him, the police who could see him rallied and struck
back at the wild civilians who tormented them.
Inhibitions vanished, fear and professionalism replaced by ferocity and
After some time—seconds? minutes?
hours?—Shaun realized he was stretching farther and farther for new
enemies, new victims. His mind snapped
back to the present, and he saw civilians running, screaming,
surging—away. The dance had ended, those
who had once led now fleeing from the floor.
Police stood still, not chasing
their vanquished enemies. They panted,
eyes wide behind armored visors. Shaun
knew that, whatever they might say afterwards, they had enjoyed what had been
done here today.
He certainly had.
This little victory, the
disengagement of these few combatants, was enough to end the riot. As these civilians fled, they spread panic,
weakened resolve, brought the rest down with them. Within a matter of minutes, the area had all
but cleared out and the few who remained were rounded up and arrested.
Finally, a collective sigh went up
from those who still stood, who had defended the peace.
Shaun stood apart, glaring down at
his feet, willing them to dance once more, to
return to the blackness that enveloped him.
A hand touched his shoulder and he
swung around, feeling the adrenaline surging again—
“Hey, calm down! It’s over!”
It was her, the officer he had taken the nightstick from. “You did a good job here.”
Shaun grunted and returned the
He began to walk away, no
destination in mind. He just needed to
do something to calm down.
Behind him were footsteps.
A reporter caught up to him,
trailing a camera man. “Excuse me! Sir!
Hi, saw what you did back there; it was great. Mind if I get an interview?”
Shaun stopped, every nerve
alert. This wasn’t like fighting, wasn’t
something pure and simple. But it could
Following Lemlin’s death, Edgar
found himself being carried outside by rescue workers operating EHUD
suits. The part of him that wasn’t
locked down with shock was proud that he had licensed the suit for rescue
purposes, but that part fell silent as he rose over the tables and saw the
entirety of the night's carnage.
The floor was rutted in places,
with blood pooling and congealing in the depressions. All around were bodies, some moving... most
not. He saw the president in the arms of
another EHUD, surrounded by agents, being hustled through the shattered main
door to parts unknown.
Edgar's shock slipped away long
enough for him to remember Amanda, to wonder where she was. He needed to find her, but was having trouble
moving on his own.
As he was carried through the door
he spotted Mistlethwakey overseeing the EHUDs as they retrieved Lemlin’s body
and removed the incriminating little tubes of the scramblers.
As if he could sense Edgar’s gaze
on him, the General looked up and flashed a quick smile.
Edgar passed out then. He woke up in a tent, surrounded once more by
screams and whimpers, but also by people in mint-green jumpsuits. One of them approached him and began poking
at his forehead.
Edgar batted the hand away. “What the hell are you doing?”
“I’ve got to stop the bleeding,
“What bleeding?” Edgar reached up and winced as he touched the
deep gash on his forehead. He didn’t
remember receiving it, but he knew that the entirety of the night's events would
take some time to process.
“Where’s my wife?”
“I wouldn’t know, sir. Please keep still.”
The medic jabbed some kind of
antiseptic gel into the gash. It burned,
and Edgar pulled away, hissing.
“Shit! Will you stop that? I’m fine!”
“I’m sorry, sir,” the medic said,
still jabbing at the gash, not taking his eyes from his work, “but if these
aren’t seen to these will become infected.”
Edgar still tried to step away, but
the medic's grip on his shoulder was too tight.
“Don’t you have someone worse off you can help?”
“No, sir, there’re plenty of us for
everyone.” He let go of Edgar's shoulder
and gripped his forehead, doing his best to hold the edges of the gash
together. He applied a thick gel to the
wound with his other hand, then pressed a bandage onto his forehead. “And that should do it. Just try to—hey!” The medic flailed his arms and tried to keep
his balance as Edgar pushed past him and out of the little tent they occupied.
Outside the tent was a
disaster. Nearly a hundred booths
covered the White House lawn, each one swarming with medical staff, injured
party guests, and soldiers. So many
He set out in search of Amanda,
picking a direction at random and following it.
He passed near the White House’s
outer fence and noticed, far down the street, a veritable wall of
humanity. Tourists, reporters, the
rabble, kept at bay by a thin line of police in riot gear; thank God for that.
Edgar continued searching, growing
more concerned as he reached the last of the tents, afraid that Amanda may be among
the white-shrouded figures that continued to be brought out of the booths at a
The tent flap pushed aside as a
medic left the booth and—there! A quick
flash of a red dress. Edgar pushed
inside and rushed to Amanda. “Oh my God,
I thought you were dead.”
She looked up at him from the cot
she sat on, then returned to her previous pose.
“Hello? You in there?”
She swallowed and took a deep
Edgar sighed in relief; she seemed
to be okay. “He’s at home, he’s fine—you
know what, that’s not important. You’re fine, right?”
“Ethan… I want Ethan.”
A medic approached them. “Sir?
Do you know this woman?”
“Yes, she’s my wife. Why?”
“I haven’t gotten any responses
Edgar opened his mouth to speak but
the medic cut him off.
“There’s nothing wrong with her, as
far as I can tell. She’s just in shock.”
Edgar crouched down next to
Amanda. “Amanda? Honey?
Are you okay?
He gripped her shoulders and forced
her to look him in the eyes. “He’s fine,
he’s at home safe—“
“Ethan!” Amanda screamed, shaking
Edgar released her shoulders and
grabbed her wrists. “Shh, no, don’t
worry, it’s okay—“
“Ethan!” she screamed again, then
began to sob.
“Okay, okay, we’re going home now,
we’ll go get Ethan.”
Amanda took a deep, shuddering
breath and nodded.
“Okay, good?” Edgar wrapped his arm around her and helped
her stand. She continued nodding as they
walked out of the tent.
The medic followed them. “I’d suggest getting her in to see a doctor;
tonight, if possible, but definitely tomorrow.”
“Okay, yeah. Hey, do you know if the valet service is
“Ethan…” Amanda interjected.
They walked together for a few
minutes, moving at a glacial pace, heading in a roundabout manner towards the
valet pickup. Now that the adrenaline
was wearing off, Edgar felt shock taking hold, unpleasant memories assaulting
him in a steady rush. Just the thought
of standing up to Lemlin as he had done sent him into a shivering fit. He could see himself spread on the floor; his
head burst open, Amanda off somewhere else, afraid, dying—
He squeezed her hand, and was
reassured when she squeezed in return.
They were within sight of the
abandoned valet station when Edgar heard the opening bars of “Hail to the
Chief” emanating from his pocket. He
waited it out, letting the music fall silent.
It started again, and Edgar felt a pang of guilt. Something unprecedented had happened—no,
other pictures flashed across his memory—something almost unprecedented
had happened, and Isaac would need advice on what to do next.
As he moved to reach into his
jacket pocket, he again felt a squeeze from Amanda, reminding him that he had
already done his duty for the president tonight. How long until Ethan found out about the
The music continued.
He could still consult from home...
Ignoring the reproachful gaze from
Amanda's dead eyes, he pulled out his mobile and clicked it open. “Hello?”
“Edgar?” Not the president: Ellie, his chief of
staff. “Good. We, uh… we weren’t sure you were alive.”
There was no good answer to that.
“Well… glad you’re still alive.”
“Me too.” Neither spoke for several long moments. Edgar cleared his throat. “Look, unless this is important, I’ve got to
get Amanda home and—“
“No, no, no.” There was a hint of hysteria in the Ellie's
voice. “The whole cabinet’s needed. Isaac wants this thing contained and we have
to figure this out and—”
“I can’t.” Edgar looked down at Amanda.
“Ethan…” Amanda muttered.
He squeezed her hand and smiled.
“Edgar. This is important. This is the whole fucking country here.” Yes, there was definitely hysteria there.
But there was also truth. The needs of an entire country did seem to be
more important than the needs of his family.
And if the country couldn't be sorted out, if society was collapsing
around his ears, what good could he do for his family?
A quiet voice reminded him that he
was involved in collapsing that society...
“I need someone to get Amanda
home. We’re at the valet post now.”
“I’ll send someone.”
Before Edgar could even end the
call, Amanda had released his hand and taken a step away.
“Don’t you fucking leave me, you
fucking bastard,” she hissed, her eyes wide and her shoulders quivering. “Don't you dare leave us now...”
“Amanda, I have to go now. I know it’s hard but—”
Edgar stared at her, completely
unsure of what to do next.
Their stare-down was interrupted by
the clatter of EHUD suits moving near them.
“Mr. Secretary?” a modulated voice asked.
Edgar turned to see two armored
soldiers standing behind him. “I need to
get a car, or a cab or something to get her home—”
“No!” Amanda yelled. “No, no, no, no, no...”
Edgar turned back to her and saw
his wife on her knees, curled forward, sobbing.
His leg started twitching in sympathy, his whole body succumbing to
whatever emotions were buried under the shock.
“What's the address, sir?”
The emotion passed, and Edgar was
back in control. “We're, uh, we're on
“Good.” Edgar nodded, then turned towards the White house. He took a few steps, stopped, and turned back
to Amanda. “Mandy? I still love you. You know that. I’m not leaving you.”
Amanda fought her way to her feet
and turned her back on her husband.
Edgar nodded again, and walked away. Behind him, he could hear the soldiers
talking, could hear them comforting his wife, doing the job he was meant
Most of the cabinet was gathered
when Edgar arrived in the Oval Office.
Some of them looked up as he entered, the fear on their faces transforming
into reverence. They had seen his
confrontation with Lemlin.
“Good,” Isaac said, not looking up
from where he sat behind his desk.
“Everyone’s here; let’s start.”
Edgar gestured at all the empty
seats scattered around the room. “Where’s
everyone else, then?” In his mind, more
white shrouded figures were being brought out of the tents.
There was a burst of nervous
giggling from Eli Rosencrantz, the press secretary. He pulled his tie out from under his jacket
and pointed to a brown stain. “That’s
the treasurer!” He laughed again, then
curled in on himself and began to sob.
“Sit down,” Isaac muttered. “We have a lot to do. I just want to go to sleep, but we’ve got
shit to do.”
Edgar picked out a chair and
sat. He took a quick census of who was
there. Assuming the speaker and the
president pro tempore were still alive, Edgar was now fourth in line. A shudder moved across his body as he
recognized the nature of the calculation he had just made.
Movement in a corner of the room
caught his eye and he saw Mistlethwakey standing by the door. He wore only slacks and an undershirt, his
bare arms mottled with reddish stains.
“Bob,” the president said. “What happened out there?”
Mistlethwakey moved further into
the room and slumped into a chair.
“Well, he was definitely one of the Defenders—“
“Goddamn it!” Isaac slammed his fist down on the desk and
glared at the General. “You think I
don’t know that? This is the second time
a Defender’s gone rogue on us, and don’t you dare give me that ‘it somehow failed’ shit! Someone is deliberately trying to bring this
whole thing crashing down on us!”
All eyes turned to Mistlethwakey.
He shrugged. “It’s possible.”
Julia Telk, leaned forward. “What aren’t you telling us, Bob?”
This couldn’t be happening. Edgar tried to take in Mistlethwakey, usually
so calm and collected, now looking hunted.
His stomach clenched. Had Bob
involved Edgar in this plot only to turn on him, let him take the blame for
what had happened tonight?
“Bob?” the president prompted.
Mistlethwakey sighed. “Okay, yeah, there... there might be the
possibility of sabotage.”
There was a collective groan from
everyone except Edgar and Eli. Eli
continued to giggle to himself; Edgar was calm.
Allen. Mistlethwakey was finally
going to play Allen.
“Details, Bob,” the vice president
Mistlethwakey folded his hands in
his lap and stared pointedly at the VP.
“Shortly before we began the release phase there were, ah,
complications. One of our scrubbers
expressed reservations about what he was tasked with doing.”
“Christ,” someone muttered.
Images of the scrubber’s
“reservations” flashed through Edgar's mind.
It looked something like what had happened tonight...
“You all right?” Julia asked.
Edgar shuddered and nodded. “I just felt, uh, I thought I was going to—“
“Yeah.” It was clear from her tone that Julia had had
her own struggles with nausea that night.
The VP shifted in her seat and
tapped the table to refocus the room’s attention. “Names, Bob.”
“What?” The president looked up, eyes wide with
surprise. “Allen? No. He
was a good soldier. Hell, the whole
program was his idea in the first place.”
Mistlethwakey shrugged. “I guess he didn’t like the way we
implemented his ideas. Anyway, we don’t
know if it was actually him.”
Isaac rolled his eyes. “Okay, well, he’s a lead, anyway. Get him in here and let’s ask him.”
Again, Mistlethwakey seemed
Isaac sighed and buried his face in
his hands. “What now?”
“Allen’s dead. Killed himself about a year ago, shortly
after we finished the scrubbing. Simple
overdose. I guess his conscience got in
The president rounded on
Edgar. “Why am I the last one to hear
about this, hmm?”
Edgar didn't know what
Mistlethwakey's line was on this, but he jumped in as best he could, hoping he
could calm the president as much as possible.
“This is the first I’ve heard, too.
I only know as much as Bob tells me.
If he chooses to keep this secret, I can’t tell you about it.”
The General snorted and rubbed his
arms. “Nice to see I'm the scapegoat in
“Fuck scapegoat.” An idea was beginning to form. Mistlethwakey had said he had set everything
up, and all Edgar had to do was sit back and reap the benefits. If that were true, then Mistlethwakey was a
loose end, and now was the perfect chance to eliminate him.
Edgar pointed an accusing finger at
the general. “Chuskus was a fluke,
maybe, but this? No, this is too big a
problem. If you suspected this, or had
intel that this was possible, you should have told us.”
The president sat up. “You’re saying Chuskus wasn’t an accident?”
“No, I don’t think she was just an
accident. I think she was a direct
consequence of Allen's 'reservations', and that what happened tonight could
have been avoided had we known about Fendleton's plans.” He paused and rubbed his chin. “I also think that something like tonight
could—will happen again.”
With a word-weary sigh, the
president slumped deeper into his chair and rubbed his eyes. “What do we do? Anyone got suggestions?”
Mistlethwakey cleared his throat.
“Allen only scrubbed half of them,
but for all we know he could have contaminated the whole bunch. The only option is to scrap the program and
collect the Defenders.”
The president made no reply, and Mistlethwakey
“It won’t be easy, either. We can assume that Allen altered their
programming, so they won’t return to us with open arms and innocent
intentions. We have to actively consider
them as all rogue.”
Silence stretched across the room for
almost a minute. “Get out.”
“No sir, I’m serious. The Defenders are too big of a—“
Everyone flinched back from the
president as he jerked upright and slammed his open palms down on the
table. “Get out! Get the fuck out of this office right now! Go!”
Mistlethwakey nodded, pried himself
from his chair, and left. Edgar was sure
this was the first time he had seen the General obey a direct order.
“Edgar.” Isaac had returned to his slumped
posture. “What do we do?”
“You mean besides hang Bob out to
That earned Edgar a chuckle. “Much as I would like to… no, he’s more
dangerous against us than with us. The
minute we out him, he starts spilling everything he has on us. So,” he looked up at Edgar, “what do we do?”
Edgar took a deep breath. “Only one thing we can do. We abandon the program. Drop pretenses and try to make peace with the
Defenders. Aside from that, the best we
can do is prepare for war and hope the public doesn’t start demanding blood. Either way ends bad.”
“No.” Isaac shook his head and patted the desk. “No.
We can’t kill this.”
“What do you mean, ‘no’? You’ve been trying for a reason to kill this
“The time to kill it was before,
back when it was a secret. Now the
people know, or at least have reason to doubt us, and anything we do to
acknowledge the program will just be an acknowledgment of guilt.”
“So you just want us to walk around
with our heads up our asses and wait for the next time a rogue Defender tries
to off you?”
“Next time we’ll be ready. Next time, we’ll have security, next time
we’ll have the scramblers—“
“Yeah, no, that won’t work. See, we had the scramblers this time, and we
used them. The scramblers—which are
specifically designed as Defender deterrents—are now public knowledge. The public knows that we know--knew--and the program’s blown. We can’t pretend the cat isn’t out of the bag
on this one.”
Isaac glared at him. “We can and we will. We acknowledge nothing Lemlin said, we jump
on top of the story, and we ride this out as long as we can. We stay alive, and no one goes to jail. Agreed?”
Edgar threw his hands up and
slumped back in his chair. “This is
stupid. I can’t believe you’re doing
something this stupid.”
Julia leaned forward and raised her
hand fractionally. “There are ways to
fix this without going public. We just
reprogram the rest of them, make sure they stay low. Get what’s-his-name, the other scrubber,
Before she finished, Edgar began
shaking his head. “He’d have to be in
close. And we don't know which of them
will recognize him and go rogue on us.
I’ll say it again: we can’t do this thing on the sly. It.
The president ignored him. “Eli, time for you to earn your paycheck.”
At the far end of the room, Eli was
still engrossed in his silent sobs.
Eli looked up and tried to smile.
“We need you, okay? We need a story for Lemlin, alright?”
Eli thought for a moment, then
nodded. “Okay, yeah, he’s, um, he’s…”
The room grew silent as Eli thought
and Edgar fumed.
The silence was broken when the
vice president gasped and jumped out of her seat. “We’re in the White House.”
All eyes focused on her.
“Someone just tried to kill you in the White House, and we’re still
here, in the goddamn Oval Office.”
“Damn straight.” Isaac tapped a quick beat on the table and
struck a proud pose. “The SS tried to
evacuate me, but I’m not hiding after this.
No, the president doesn’t go skulking off and hiding after some nut
tries to kill him!”
“Shit.” The VP looked around in confusion. “You’re—you’re crazy, Isaac. You can’t do this. You’re here at ground zero with who knows how
many Defenders out there and you refuse to take the only sensible course of
action.” She shook her head and blinked
several times. “I didn’t sign up for
this. I—I—“ She didn’t finish her sentence, but everyone
knew what she was thinking about. “I’m
done. I hereby resign, whatever.”
“Hey, where are you going? You can’t just leave!”
She ignored him and walked out the
At least two down. Edgar swallowed, and wondered if he should
The president snorted and gestured
in the former vice-president’s direction.
“We don’t need her anyway. Don’t
need pessimism, don’t need undermining.”
He nodded to himself. “It won’t
be pretty, but we can ride this out.”
There was somber head-nodding
around the room.
“You know what? Fuck you.”
Edgar stood. “You all didn't see
him, alright? You didn't see him like I
did. He was pissed off, and he was not
going quietly. We got lucky. What happens when ten of them come together,
huh? I'd think a little harder about
keeping up the charade before you have to face real power. The only way any of us stay alive at this
point is if they let us.” His
speech done, he followed the former Vice President out.
“Where are you going?” Isaac’s icy voice stopped Edgar at the door.
“Home. Amanda’s worried, it’s late, and there’s
nothing I can do tonight.” He turned
back to the president. “Tomorrow…
tomorrow I’ll be here to do the best I can to get you through this
shit-storm. You may not listen to me,
but I’ll try my best.”
Isaac nodded, but in no other way
acknowledged Edgar’s presence.
Outside the office the corridor was
bright, and a frail old man in his undershirt sat under a painting of a
horse. He rose and strode over to Edgar,
his lithe movement belying his age.
“You did good in there. Said what needed to be said. Just got off the phone with head of security;
they’ve pieced together the president pro tempore; three down.” He reached to pat Edgar on the shoulder.
Edgar ducked the arm, grabbed the
front of Mistlethwakey's shirt, and slammed him into the wall. “Listen,” he hissed, “I'll do it, I'll stick
with your Q-bomb shit, but we're through, you hear me? No more manipulating me, no more dropping
little surprises like Lemlin on my family, alright? You'll get what you want, but leave me the hell
alone!” He released the General and
Mistlethwakey slid down until he was standing on his own.
“Whatever you say.” He turned and strode away.
Edgar didn't notice. All he saw was the smile Mistlethwakey wore
throughout their whole confrontation...